When Nora Delf, a sophomore at Bard High School Early College in New York City, doesn't like a T-shirt, she'll cut it. If a necklace seems like it needs an extra something, she'll swap a few charms from another piece of jewelry.
"I don't hesitate to fix something myself if it isn't working," the 16-year-old said, peering into her closet. "Maybe I like what a T-shirt says on it, but it's too big. So I think, 'How can I make it more flattering?'"
Delf's recent buys? A Boy Scouts tee and $10 Timberland boots she found at a thrift store in Brooklyn. "I've kind of worn the boots every day since."
Like Delf, teens throughout the country are finding new ways to make clothes their own -- whether it's applying rhinestones, cutting a shirt or creating an entire handbag from scratch. Forging an identity through fashion is nothing new, but teen branding experts say that the recession prompted high schoolers to find additional ways to save money. The beneficiary? Do-it-yourself companies.
"As the economy started tanking a few years ago, mothers and fathers started pulling back the reins," said Erica Domesek, owner of the do-it-yourself, or DIY, company P.S. - I Made This. "Maybe they took back the credit cards or cut back allowances. Teens still wanted things, though, and DIY left them with no guilt."
Slashes to household budgets inspired creativity, sending kids to crafts stores like Michaels and Jo-Ann Fabrics & Crafts. "Parents usually spend a lot on back-to-school clothes," said retail analyst Hitha Prabhakar. "But the last few years they had to cut back."
While their moms were busy shopping their closets looking for ways to repurpose an old blazer or dress, their daughters were going to the tool drawer for scissors and Scotch Tape. Getting in on the trend the Duck brand created a contest in which students design prom outfits entirely out of duct tape. After 95 hours and 57 rolls of Duck tape, Jarrid and Lindsay, Kentucky Governor's School for the Arts Summer Program graduates, each won a $5,000 cash scholarship and $5,000 for their schools last year.
Families are expected to spend an average of $1,078 on prom in 2012, up from $807 last year, according to a survey released by Visa in early April. Despite the recent economic downturn, proms have become more lavish, the survey found. "Yet parents aren't necessarily happy with the selection of dresses out there," said Zoey Washington, owner of LITTLEbird, a teen branding and DIY company. Whether it's because the dresses are too expensive or provocative, off-the-rack styles often don't fit the bill.
"Girls are going to their seamstress with fabric and creating their own designs," Washington explained. "They are taking inspiration from mega stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Selena Gomez, creating hybrids of various dresses they've seen." The result, Washington said, has been jewel tones, champagne hues and "lots of beading."
The willingness to cut, glue and tape has left conventional designers scratching their heads, wondering how to market to a group that doesn't need to follow the pack. "It has made it much more difficult for teen companies," said Mary LiVecchi, design director at SOLD Design Lab, a denim brand with a young customer base. "I work 17 - 18 hours a day, going to visit high schools, malls, Disney and Universal Studios just to walk around and see what girls are wearing."
It's not enough to make a five-pocket jean, she said. Today, SOLD offers Navajo-inspired styles, nailheads, destructed looks and patchwork. "There isn't one trend. It's everything," LiVecchi said. "Kids want to be noticed."
Sammi Parrish, a junior at Garrison Forest School in Owing Mills, Md., has been noticed. After practicing sewing with her mom on and off for five years, she started making her own skirts in 8th grade. "The first one was simple with a stretchy fabric and elastic waistband," she recalled. "But today, Parrish designs intricate dresses, bags and high-waisted shorts, selling styles on the Internet with her mom, Glenda. Her studio is a basement with 10 sewing machines and endless piles of fabric.
"Every time Sammi makes a garment, she learns something new," her mom said. "I have an unwritten policy that I'll let her run with a fabric and do what she wants, even if she makes mistakes."
Meanwhile Glenda "waits and waits," she said, laughing. "I just shut up until she's done."